Pulque was once the most consumed drink in Mexico and after a period of neglect and oblivion it is making a come back in the form of a distillate
Who would let a 5 year old drink pulque? Juanita, my great-great aunt, was fed with pulque. She was my mother’s great aunt but we called her Abuelita Juanita. She lost her husband at a very young age and never remarried, and instead dedicated part of her life to cooking for my mom and her ten siblings. Pulque was known in the household because of her. Her father gave her pulque when she was a little girl and as an adult she refused to drink water but never said no to pulque. She would get her own shipment each week and drink a small glass of it before breakfast, every day of her life until she passed at around 84 years old. It was her secret to a healthy life.
Both of my parents grew up in La Merced, a neighborhood in Mexico City known for holding the first wholesale and biggest mercado in Mexico. Described by historians as a city within a city, La Merced was the main food distribution center with an important infrastructure built around it: numerous hotels, restaurants, warehouses, doctor offices, and guess what? More than 37 pulquerías. When I moved back to Mexico City (now called CDMX), my doctor recommended that I drink pulque every day before breakfast, “to take out the gringo bacteria from your system and bring in the Mexican one.” I thought he was joking but he was not. I had heard of pulque being very good for your gut because of it being a naturally fermented drink but I never expected it to be part of my medical prescription.
That was how I began a hunt for a good pulque, guided by the spirit of my abuelita Juanita who I never met but always felt attached to. My mom named me after her (rebranding Juana into Joahna) so there was that connection but as I grew up and heard more stories about her, I am pretty sure my love for cooking and fermented drinks came from her. After two years back in CDMX, I have realized how we Mexicans have had a love-hate relationship with pulque. Throughout history it has enjoyed periods of both high praise and stigma. But different from agave distillates, its vindication has taken longer. Pulque was a part of the older generation like my abuelita’s because they grew up during its golden years, but my parents’ generation is very opinionated about it since they saw its decline. When I brought them some samples from a local pulquería, my aunt said “I hate the smell and the taste, but from what I can see it looks like aguamiel, not pulque”. My mom remarked “I remember it being thicker and sour, and I am not sure if this is pulque”. My dad just drank it. I felt like I failed. In one other occasion, at a family reunion in Morelos, my cousin tried one we got in a pulqueria and she was not impressed saying “this was diluted, it tastes like Splenda”. As I wondered how I had failed again, I realized it was because I didn’t actually know what constituted a good pulque nor where to find it.
I wanted to read more about its evolution and history. I was left with many papers related to pulque when working on a previous story about Mayahuel. In order to understand how the “elixir of Gods” evolved from a ceremonial beverage to the most popular drink in the XVIII and XIX centuries, it is necessary to understand how Mexico took shape after the Spanish Conquest and during the Mexican Revolution. The decline of pulque in the 1940’s was influenced mostly by the introduction of beer, which reduced a thriving industry to a very small almost disappearing productive chain.
When you look at golden years of pulque (1860 to 1910) you can see history repeating itself today in the agave distillates industry which has created an economic sector built on the idea of integrating an ancestral tradition in the name of progress. In the 19th century this idea was applied by the most wealthy men and women in the country, who pushed for creating a modern national economy. Even though the current context is different, there is an exhaustive effort to rebrand pulque, eradicate stigma and avoid mistakes from the past. This effort is creating a market for a barely explored alternative, distilled pulque, a category that resurfaced in the mid 1990’s and seems to be getting more attention.
Turning aguamiel into pulque
Aguamiel is the agave sap and pulque is the result of its fermentation. Agave salmiana is one of the three mostly used species for the production of pulque. Depending on the weather and size of the plant, it takes about 12 years for it to grow and ripen. The process of making pulque starts when the quiote is removed and the tlachiquero, the term for the person who harvests the agave sap or aguamiel, cuts up the leaves until he reaches the heart of the agave or “meyolote”, he starts picking it until it is removed leaving a cavity where the sap or aguamiel will be coming out. He uses the scrapes to cover the cavity and leaves it resting, from six months to a year in order to allow the sugars or Brix degrees to accumulate.
The tlachiquero scrapes all year long different magueyes and once a maguey is cut open, the sap has to be collected twice a day, in the mornings and afternoon. If the tlachiquero doesn’t know how to scrape correctly, the maguey “se chiquea” or starts rotting. The aguamiel is collected through a cylinder shaped gourd called acocote. It is then put inside a special basket that will be carried back to the “tinacal” by a donkey. Tinacals were the rooms in the haciendas where pulque was stored inside large barrels made of wood or cow skin, and now plastic. The pulque contained in such barrels needs to be fed everyday with aguamiel to keep the fermentation going. According to Jose Juan from Pulque Aragón, it can be fed for up to 30 days.
Pulque’s popularity during and after the Spanish Conquest was possible because technically any agave provides pulque, so it is a democratic drink available to everyone despite their social status. After the consummation of Mexican independence, social leadership was polarized and the forming State was disorganized. There was a group of scientists that supported the installation of Maximiliano’s Empire because they saw it as a path to create a national pulque industry. In the early 18th century, men like Miguel Payno started documenting biodiversity in order to understand what resources were available, which ones could be exploited to eventually increase tax collection and therefore, make more income available for the State. The scientific knowledge gathered by experts translated into an increased interest in developing an industry of agave by-products such as agave paper, crystallized sugar made out of aguamiel, mezcal, ixtle, piloncillo, vinegars, gums and syrups.
I had a chance to speak with Martin Pichardo Rico, owner of Pulcatta and president of the National Council of the Agave Pulquero System, who provided some historic context he learned from his grandfather. The railroad was built in 1866 and before that, there were no roads so distribution outside the area was impossible. Only Cholula in Puebla and Toluca in the Estado de México were important regions for pulque. This changed during the rule of Porfirio Diaz whose modernization plans included the construction of the railroad system that connected different regions with the coast allowing the growth of pulque production into a national industry. By 1870 the production of pulque moved to what is called “llanos de Apan ” integrated by a valley of three states Puebla, Hidalgo, Tlaxcala. This area had better access to transportation so it became the most important productive area of pulque. The Porfiriato is known for being the golden age for pulque, creating a significant wealth and an important elite of businessmen whose families integrated the pulque aristocracy.
Pulque’s popularity created a lot of opposition mainly from the most conservative groups. The Mexican Revolution initiated the decline of pulque making mostly because the revolution was set against concentration of land, and most pulque making was done on the large haciendas that were being broken apart. Some of the pulqueros that remain today blame that redistribution of land for leaving very small portions of land on which to survive.
Pulque prohibition was not as explicit as the ban on hard liquor in the US in the 1920’s, especially with most of the Mexican Revolution leaders focusing on the redistribution of agricultural land which was already diminishing production. Slowly over time, regulations became more restrictive, more taxes were levied and more sanitary guidelines were set up to ensure hygiene of the production process. Also during Prohibition, “Guardias Blancas” or white guards were established, and at schools the students were responsible for reporting if their fathers were inebriated. There were medical counsels set up against pulque consumption in which they used lawyers, medics and specialists to go through the list of deaths and find a way to establish a correlation between deaths and pulque as the main reason.
According to Pichardo, pulque consumption was greater than beer in Mexico until 1940, and averaged 350 liters per capita per year. In 1941, the consumption of beer exceeded pulque for the first time and marked the end of the pulque industry in Mexico as it had been known.
Contributing to the decline of pulque, a beer industry PR campaign to damage the reputation of pulque which focused on the purity and cleaningles of beer. For example, beer bottles were purposely clear to reinforce its “cleanliness”. There was also the spread of unfounded rumors: one example, pulque fermentation was possible due to the addition of feces to the liquid. Ironically, giving pulque to a five year old was punished and judged while public ads promoting beer as a great option for kids was fine.
Mexico City (CDMX) was the main center of consumption of pulque, and as consumption declined, the impact on producers was not equal. Producers from northern Puebla never sold to CDMX, only selling within their region where demand was sufficient enough to maintain their production through till today. But in the Llanos de Apán region, where producers sold outside of their local areas were more greatly impacted when consumption of pulque in CDMX began declining. This led to less agave being planted over time and today, there is not enough agave to support any real production. Additionally, the states of Tlaxcala and Hidalgo have suffered from soil erosion due to the heavy activity of agro businesses. In Tlaxcala, farmers are paid about 25,000 pesos per hectare for a period of six months to grow anything from tomatoes, onions, garlic, broccoli, or berries. Hidalgo occupies second place nationwide in the production of malted barley and most of the agricultural land is now used for grain with annual production up to 200,237 metric tons.
Enter, distilled pulque
There are no records of pulque being distilled before the Spanish arrival, and while there is research about mezcal distillation, there is hardly any about the distillation of pulque specifically. However, during the Porfiriato and before the construction of the railroad, selling distilled pulque responded to the necessity of avoiding waste, pulqueros would use their alambiques made of steel to distill the leftovers so they could store them. After the Revolution, many of the old haciendas were abandoned and the pulquero families ceased production, and moved into the cities or changed pulque for crops with higher yields that paid more such as fruits or cereals.
According to the National Association of National Pulquerias, pulque sales will increase by 10% this year and production could reach 183.9 million liters, the highest level since 2017. I spoke with five producers who are aware of the potential market for pulque distillates. They share the goal to vindicate pulque and take advantage of the path opened by other agave distillates, mostly in the international market.
One of them is Bernardo Aldasoro, owner of Guixi, a distilled pulque from Hidalgo. Last year, he decided to take over the family’s hacienda in San Antonio Tochatlaco, Hidalgo. They started growing salmiana and another variety called xamani which has smaller leaves. Their pulque ferments for about three days using a mother pulque referred to as semilla, or seed. In order to get one liter of distillate they need 10 liters of pulque. On average, they can get 5 to 8 liters of aguamiel per day per maguey and depending on the distance between magueyes, a tlachiquero can scrape about 30 magueyes per day. For Bernardo, production can only be artisanal because it is not possible to industrialize any part of the production process. They use a stainless steel alambique and distill twice, cutting tails and heads and using only the heart. The result is a spirit of 26% abv in order to preserve most of the pulque taste, a well accepted attribute among bartenders who want to use it in cocktails. I once tried a cocktail that combined hibiscus, mezcal and pulque with a spicy salt rim. It was delicious and lessened the pulque texture, which people are sometimes hesitant about, though not the flavor. Additionally, with distilled pulque you don’t have the risk of pulque going bad. If the distillate doesn’t sell, you can use it anytime so it makes sense to have a low proof. They sell in Pachuca, Zempoala and Ciudad de México. Once they are able to get their fabrica certified, they are looking into producing 300 liters per month.
In the market, aguamiel prices can go up to 7 pesos per liter (about 35 cents) depending on the type and region where it is produced. Aldasoro’s priority is to improve workers’ conditions, specifically regarding wages. He and other distillers pay a higher price in order to get the best quality aguamiel. According to Pichardo, just a few tlachiqueros work for the tincacales and they get paid either per day (about 250 pesos or $12 USD) or per liter. Others work for themselves, they buy their own agave and produce their own aguamiel to sell to the tinacales, and some make pulque and sell it to the tinacales or directly to the consumers. Jose Juán Aragón, a longtime pulque maker, pays about 3,000 pesos per week ($150 USD) to his tlachiqueros so if one day a tlachiquero brings100 liters of good aguamiel it translates to 500 pesos per day.
Juerte, another distilled pulque, is 40% abv and has a more complex palate. Jorge Viveros, owner of the brand, says their Master Distiller Gerónimo Rosainz stretches fermentation as long as possible so the flavors of the distillate are very special and specific. You can check Mezcalistas tasting notes here. Rosainz inherited the knowledge from his grandparents, he owns Rancho Los Sauces in Tlaxcala located 2800 meter above sea level. They use a pulque seed that remains untouched for about forty days and is made with the purest aguamiel. He began distilling in 1993 with the advice of a specialist from the state University.
Pichardo’s company Pulcatta has more than twenty years in the market and was one of the first that began distilling again.They have two distilleries located in Zacatlán, Puebla and all the producers of pulque involved in the process own a percentage of the brand. Said Pichardo, “In the seventies, distillation was almost forgotten and there was no market for it so we had to find new ways to commercialize and create new markets for this product.” Their brand is available in the US market under the name of Xoma, which means “small leaf”. It is available in 31 states and is distilled to 40% abv. Pichardo says they don’t dilute it with water but only with puntas of the same or other batches. In six months they can produce about 1000 liters of pulque per plant.
Estado de Mexico is also known for its pulque. At Pulcata La Loba, three families with a long tradition in pulque are working together to honor the memory of their great grandparents. They own the entire chain from growing agaves to making their pulque, they are developing their own seedbed to reproduce hijuelos of maguey pulquero. Yessica Fernández explained, “We separate the sap or aguamiel that goes for the distiller and the one for commercial pulque.” Intrigued by my mom’s confusion, I asked Fernández about the differences in texture and flavor between aguamiel and pulque. She responded that aguamiel should be clear, sweet like natural honey, and with a green taste, like the plants. She added there are different qualities of pulque. Theirs is pulque de punta which has been fermented for four or five months, which is not viscous or slimy but thick. Their pulcata is located up in the mountain where the agave’s concentration of sugar is greater than those grown at sea level hence making the sap sweeter. It is strong, at almost 9% abv, but not bitter. Their commercial pulque is fermented for three or four days and it is not concentrated. Every family produces its own semilla recipe, the mother, and is like a sourdough starter recipe that is passed from generation to generation. The pulque de punta has a better yield for making distillates than the commercial one, meaning it only takes 10 liters of pulque to make 1 liter of distilled pulque. They use agave ayoteco which takes about 10 to 11 years to mature.
The Aragón family is one of the main producers in Atltzayanca, Tlaxcala. Jose Juan Aragón inherited the tradition from his grandparents and has spent the last 45 years making pulque. He also raises cattle and grows different crops such as oats, malt, alfalfa and maize, to make ends meet. Their pulcata is located 150 km from the Llanos de Apán. His family owns 10 hectares where they grow Agave salmiana known as Manso and other varieties such as Prieto, Amarillo and Palmilla. They now have about 21,000 plants with an annual reforestation program. They are able to produce 60 barrels of aguamiel every week, with each barrel holding about 250 liters. Most of their business is distributing pulque to pulquerías within Tlaxcala as well as Puebla and Veracruz.
Distilled pulque is not their main product but Aragón got into it so they could manage their leftover pulque. As of now, they have 3 000 liters stored, out of which 2000 are aged in barrels and the rest are rested in glass. They age it in oak barrels and have bottles that have been aging up to fifteen years. His is a family business in which his sons are in charge of managing the agave fields, coordinating the production at the tinacales and sales. Unlike Juerte, La Loba and Xoma, Aragon is not focused on the international market, at least not yet.
A Denominación de Origen for pulque?
Tlaxcala is not part of the Denominación de Origen (DO) of mezcal, nor has the state applied because of the lack of evidence or historical records of it being an area where mezcal was made. However, many producers are using maguey pulquero to make mezcal or destilados de agave.
A few years ago, producers in Puebla began working together with the state university to analyze a possible inclusion in the DO. The first step was to regulate pulque production in a manner similar to a DO but it was not possible. For Pichardo, this beverage is too popular and a NOM mandates a certification for the whole chain. Just figuring out how you would certify a tlachiquero was complicated. Due to these complexities, they decided to look into the geographical indications. The first step was to create the Sistema Producto, a sort of agricultural chapter that grants them national representation. Through this organization they have been able to establish formal relationships with local and federal lawmakers. Due to COVID 19, they have not advanced as much as they wanted to but their goal is to create a geographic indication for pulque distillates.
Every one of the producers I talked to agreed that pulque is a 100 percent ecological drink since they do not use wood or fossil fuel as much as other distillates do. According to Pichardo the contents of methanol are not greater than 20 parts per million but Fernández from Pulcatta la Loba declares there is no methanol in the spirit because its process does not involve cooking the agave and therefore there is no liberation of pectins.
Bernardo has been working together with pulqueros in Hidalgo to join forces and push the pulque distillate category as well as protecting it from producers who are making mezcal with agave pulquero but selling it as destilado de pulque. He wasn’t clear as to who is exactly doing that. Pichardo said that in Ixtacamixtitlán, Puebla, the pulque distillate is called “mezcal de pulque”. Fernández shares a very similar view as she has participated in different talks among producers of other regions for the creation of a collective brand. She agrees that a DO is not viable since pulque can be made “all over Mexico” and is not limited only to a few regions, and like with mezcal, the agave terroir defines many of the organoleptic characteristics of pulque distillates. As Pichardo puts it, pulques made near the volcanoes in Puebla have very specific characteristics, the perlas are not white but rather green or blue due to the mountain climate.
In speaking with the producers I realized that my concern of not getting good pulque in the city has its reasons. “We don’t buy pulque from other producers because of the risk of it ‘being blessed’ or diluted with water, fruit juice, sugars or gums. Any of these ingredients alter the yield when distilling.” said Fernández. The practice of blessing pulque to extend its shelf life is very common. Fernández believes that better regulation is needed to guarantee the quality of pulque to consumers. She also considers it important to establish an industry standard for what should be called pulque.
These producers want Mexicans to recover the gusto histórico for pulque. Pichardo says that a good pulque should contain at least six Brix degrees, the measurement of the sugar content in the agave, and that what we drink in the city is different from what people get in the pulcatas by the agave fields. As a side note, for mezcal made with espadin, 24 brix is considered the minimum sugar content needed to make it into mezcal. He strongly believes that only those with the best practices should be part of a geographical indication for pulque. Even though the willingness of creating a profitable industry exists, there is an important legal void and it requires producers and government representatives to agree on a regulation that benefits the entire pulque production chain. If their goal is to position pulque distillates as an alternative to mezcal and tequila without the mistakes, they really need to stick to organic growth due to the artisanal nature of pulque. Fernández declined a request to produce 10,000 liters per month because she doesn’t have the capacity. When asked if making a blend of different producers’ pulque would apply she said it wouldn’t. The idea is to involve the different family producers but through a collective brand so each region is recognized by the quality of the pulque they make. She considers satisfying such a large demand would risk the artisanal nature and viability of their business.
I believe helping recover the gusto historico for pulque is very inspiring. I also appreciate the optics of these producers who do not see themselves as rescuers of the tradition or saviors of pulque. They are aware that maybe pulque won’t be what it was but they do want to fix it’s reputation and mostly, they are willing to study the market to figure out what the consumer wants. And for that, innovation is key. I think for it to gain more recognition, brands need to find their niche, and there is still room for experimenting without risking the value of tradition and the integrity of the producers. I definitely would like to taste what else pulque distillate can offer in terms of flavors and textures. I guess if I had met my Abuelita Juanita, I would have inherited the gusto histórico that Pichardo talks about. Each of the pulque makers in this story said that I have to visit their pulcatas so I can have a fair reference on how it is supposed to taste. With such a complex history, the efforts of government and businesses could focus more on educating consumers. The creation of La Ruta del Pulque in different states is a great start and it could be the path to attract and engage a new generation of pulque drinkers. This new spirit cannot bear the weight of becoming the savior or the alternative to contain the overexploitation of maguey. But it can certainly pave the way of doing things better.
1 Proceso de elaboración del pulque, su importancia económica y concepción social en Apan, Hidalgo, https://www.enah.edu.mx/publicaciones/documentos/32.pdf
2 Pulque en el imperio de Maximiliano https://www.academia.edu/33578309/El_pulque_en_el_imperio_de_Maximiliano